Understanding the failure: what’s really wrong and why new agencies or doctrine won’t be enough to fix it

There is a serious problem with America’s communication abilities.  It isn’t just a problem of capacity, but constraints created by misunderstanding. 

Sixty years ago, the elements of America’s national power – diplomacy, information, military, and economics, or DIME – were retooled to meet an emerging threat with the National Security Act of 1947 and the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Like today, U.S. was engaged in a war of ideas and perceptions both globally and domestically, however the importance and impact of Smith-Mundt is ignored despite its influence, often negative, on every aspect of America’s informational arsenal. It is time to retool for the future fight.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s recent suggestion to recreate the United States Information Agency for the modern conflict really stirred things up. Setting the tone was Sharon Weinberger of Danger Room with a post that didn’t hide her disdain for the idea. Following her lead was Mike Nizza of the New York Times blog The Lede with a post that closed with “[d]efenders of Mr. Rumsfeld’s proposal have yet to emerge in the blogosphere.”

Then there was William Arkin’s post on WaPo lamenting that “Pentagon feels it is its responsibility to fill in a vacuum” of the war of ideas but doing so in ways that are “hopelessly confused.” But, as Arkin pleads it, it is not the job of the military to “wage the nation’s information wars.” True, but who else will do it, Mr. Arkin?

What is the real issue here? Steve Corman suggests we should be talking about a missing approach and not a missing tool.  He recalls that USIA relied on a field driven approach that understand the local audiences and shaped communication and discourse accordingly.  The independence of the agency was one thing — not a small thing — but how did its job was the key.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, speaking this past weekend at CSIS, said the key problem preventing effective America participation in the war of ideas today is one of capacity.  It is certainly a problem, but it is not the only problem and it may not shape our abilities as much as the Smith-Mundt Act.

Smith-Mundt has done more to shape the content and methods of communications from both State and Defense than anything else. It has institutionalized firewalls based on artificial lines and fostered a bureaucratic culture of discrimination that hampers America’s ability to participate in the modern struggle over ideas and managing perceptions.  The State Department divides its informational assets into Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy. The Defense Department has Public Affairs, Information Operations, Psychological Operations, and now Strategic Communications.

Steve says "we have people in our existing strategic communication establishment" who have figured out the disconnect between words and deeds. What is the strategy of this "establishment"? There is one coming out and it is absolutely a product of the education float DoD can afford:

Strategic communication is focused United States Government efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of United States Government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power. Strategic communication comprises an important part of the U.S. Government’s information arsenal. The Government communicates themes and messages based on fundamental positions enumerated in the U.S. Constitution and further developed in U.S. policy. While the U.S. leadership communicates some of this information directly through policy and directives, it also shapes the environment by providing access and information to the media.

Both Arkin and Steve made a point to quote Mike Doran, the guy in leading DoD’s Support of Public Diplomacy, on the importance of "syncing our messaging with our actions, so our actions reinforce our words." Of course this isn’t revolutionary. It’s a basic premise of public diplomacy and international relations and it’s found within the above draft (as of today)strategy that isn’t coming out of State.

Compare this with State’s strategy for public diplomacy. Some may be surprised that the U.S. government’s office that "manages" our foreign voice is goal specific whereas Defense is effects based, encompassing and understanding that the tools of national power go well beyond kinetics.

State’s capacity is not the whole problem. There is an inherent dysfunction to the system that prevents effective participation in today’s war of ideas. We can recall the old system and reminisce about the USIA while debating the merits of its return, but our "whisper" remains in the absence of major overhaul.

Ironically, the Act that created the USIA is the same one that is misinterpreted improperly invoked today to prevent, for example, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support of Public Diplomacy Mike Doran from speaking to U.S. media. This restriction is based on an artificial bifurcation based on geography and shaped by a fear that someone within our borders might hear what he says.

Few noticed, but Mike is not permitted to speak domestically. The recent GovExec interview was an anomaly that spun up before Public Affairs could kill it. PA previously shut down Mike’s participation on DoD’s own Blogger Roundtable, itself a tool of public affairs.

Why? Because Mike is "aimed" at offshore audiences just as State’s PD is not intended for domestic consumption.

Mike is a symbol of a functional fissure created by Smith-Mundt that cleaves foreign and domestic audiences. If you live in the U.S., the only time you’ll hear Mike talk is when it’s to the Foreign Press Center or when DoD Public Affairs "censorship" slips.

Symbolic of a larger self-censorship by false invocation by lawyers and public affairs officers, DoD has adopted State’s liabilities as it has adopted its responsibilities. Interestingly, some very senior folks in State, including the now departed Karen Hughes, and some senior USIA people had no idea DoD perceived itself to be under Smith-Mundt. Some have argued, rightly, that DoD is not covered by Smith-Mundt. Too bad DoD’s OGC disagrees.

Our systems are dysfunctional. We pretend they mimic the 1940s world in which they were originally crafted but we ignore the perversions over the last several decades, including the retreat from the aggressive stance we had in the last war of ideas which ended with detente several decades ago.

The communication revolution of the 1940s and the escalating war of ideas at home and abroad required a response that did more than just creating an agency. There was a systemic overhaul that went deeper than creating the USIA and changed our approach to the war of ideas created a strategy, if unwritten, for the "psychological struggle for minds and wills" as presidential candidate Eisenhower put it in 1952.

Before debating the USIA, we must consider the desired effects when interacting with dynamic and global diasporas and global communications and transportation as both we and our enemy has instant access to global audiences filled with swing voters and "foot soldiers" for various sides, including ours, ready to provide ideological, financial, and physical support to the cause.

Weak centralized leadership from State has so far been unable to find a voice or a real purpose. Nobody wants Defense to be America’s chief public diplomat, least of which the DoD. But until we get our house in order and match our capabilities with the requirements, the capacity problem will foster dysfunction in the department in which we can least afford it.

It is true there is a capacity problem, but there is a fundamental structural problem that has done more to shape our strategic, operational, and tactical information products than anything.  Recreating USIA, re-emphasizing the importance of strategic communications, or changing doctrine cannot overcome or fix fundamental normative behavior that has evolved through false interpretations of Smith-Mundt.  Among all Western countries, the U.S. is unique in having such a law.  Amazingly, even the recent Defense Sciences Board report on Strategic Communications ignores this point.

The impact of Smith-Mundt must be addressed before any substantial revision to America’s information capabilities will succeed.  Doing so will result in more effective capabilities that conform to the modern world and will have a greater ripple effect through government than any new doctrine or report could possibly hope for. 

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One thought on “Understanding the failure: what’s really wrong and why new agencies or doctrine won’t be enough to fix it

  1. A house divided against itself can neither stand nor talk straight. This is a great post and you have discussed several of the impediments to victory in the War of Ideas, but you haven’t said much about American ideological internal contradictions and the effect they have on putting out a coherent message to the external target audience AND to the internal audience. We have a painfully inarticulate Chief Executive who, in trying to change the tone in Washington failed to purge the Executive Branch of the adherents of his political opponents, we have a State Department infested with unpurged oppositional operatives, we have an absent InterAgency content to let DOD fight the Long War/GWOT/Third Great Jihad/Twelfth Crusade by themselves, and we have a Department of Defense that enjoys a reputation with the domestic audience as an island of competence in an otherwise disgusting government, in large part because they defend all of us without regard to political affiliation.There has been much that has gone on since 9/11 that cannot be candidly explained and described and justifed to the world in open forums. To do so would blow the cover on too much, burn too many assets, make impossible the assistance America receives from Muslims, who are the only people who can accomplish a Muslim Reformation that rejects the doctrines of perpetual Holy War against non-Muslims. Our leaders cannot explain to us without telling the whole world, including our enemies, foreign AND domestic, what they are up to.
    I think what our leaders are up to amounts to aiding and abetting Muslims in joining the 21st Century and reforming their religion before the continued survival of the West mandates the deaths of millions of Muslims in a thermonuclear ratonnade which fouls humanity’s terrestrial nest and burdens the survivors of Western Christendom with unbearable guilt, but they don’t explain that very well, and the Jacksonian element of the Commander-in-Chief’s base have pretty much seceded in disgust because they don’t understand it.
    Too many politically incorrect, culturally insensitive, carbon footprint enlarging, nationalistic gorillas in the room are being ignored by the motley crew of career civil servants, career military officers, political appointees and contractors We The People have allowed to fight the War of Ideas on our behalf.

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